Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20, preached at the Tunbridge Church in Vermont, 7 September 2014.
A friend of mine once told me that, at the very conservative seminary she went to, a lot of the male students would sit around the dorm common rooms in the evenings and actually talk about the conditions under which they, as future pastors, would ever excommunicate someone from their church. This is one of the passages they’d turn to in order to justify their potential excommunication of their parishioners. Which tells you they weren’t really that familiar with the Jesus of the Gospels; this is the man who was condemned for his friendship with tax collectors and lepers, remember. On the very few occasions when Jesus did speak positively about exclusion, he was speaking about excluding those in positions of power or authority who misused that authority to oppress others; in other words, the very pastors these men were talking about becoming.
Today’s gospel reading isn’t about leaders using their power to oppress the weak. It’s one of those passages that cannot be understood without looking at the larger context: Just previous to this teaching, Jesus has spoken about how those who wish to enter the kingdom must humble themselves, becoming like children. He has warned his congregation that there is nothing so bad and harmful to the community as becoming a stumbling-block to others, especially to the humble and child-like in the community. He has conjured for his listeners the image of God as a shepherd with one hundred sheep; one has gone off and gotten lost, and the shepherd leaves the greater part of the flock to look for the single sheep that is lost—that is how precious each sheep is to him. And just after this passage about dialogue, Peter will ask Jesus about forgiveness, and Jesus will explain that a person must forgive, not only seven times, but seventy times seven times, one of many examples of Jesus’ reliance on overstatement and exaggeration to get his point across: Forgiveness is not a suggestion; it is a requirement.
Yet the forgiveness Jesus talks about is not self-denigrating forgiveness; it is forgiveness with self-respect. Yes, there are no limits on how many times we are to forgive, but in the verses we just heard read today, Jesus tells us that there are limits on what we are to put up with. This has long been obscured by certain strands within Christianity, with even priests and pastors telling abused women, for example, to go back to their abusers “for the sake of the marriage.” Nothing could be farther from the spirit of Jesus than advice like this; as we see in so many texts, Jesus is always, always on the side of those who are weak and vulnerable, the humble, the ones with no authority of their own in society. And while we are called to forgive, the truth is that forgiveness does not entail putting ourselves back in a situation where we can be sinned against. The context of the rest of Matthew chapter 18 indicates that Jesus’ focus here, as it is everywhere, is on protecting the weak and humble.
Theologians have argued that Jesus’ mission, his teaching and his death and resurrection, are all aimed at liberating the world from the powers of blame, shame, coercion, and scapegoating. He excels at telling parables that overturn his listeners’ expectations. He speaks of the last becoming first, and the first last. He shocks his disciples into realizing that the things they were concerned about were fleeting vanities, while what they should be concerned about was the love they showed their neighbors and their God. He wants to strip away the habits and social structures that obscure the truths about human relationships, that twist our relationships and make them unhealthy and unloving. Jesus wants to free us, to bring our relationships out into the light of truth, help us understand the things that hurt each other and erect barriers between people.
That desire is at the heart of today’s gospel reading. “If your neighbor sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If your neighbor listens to you, you have regained that one.” First, Jesus says, be honest. Don’t keep resentments and grudges, don’t gossip about it to everyone but your neighbor: Go and tell your neighbor that he or she hurt you. No passive aggressiveness, no yelling, no thinking, “Well, maybe I deserved being hurt like that.” Jesus’ advice presumes that both people have value, the sinner and the one sinned against. And the relationship has value: You can’t just pretend it never happened, you can’t pretend the sin never happened; you need to face it.
Next he says, “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This is exactly the thing to do to prevent bullying, lying, and gossip: Involve other people. Moreover, Jesus is presuming that the conflict is happening in a community of people; not an anonymous group of random strangers, but something similar to a church or a small town. There are various interrelationships, so any conflict between two people is going to have repercussions beyond those two. Also, if a member of the community is abusing their power, the last person who should be alone with that member, after they have failed to apologize and change their behavior, is the one who has been abused.
Finally, “If your neighbor refuses to listen to them, tell it to the community; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the community, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” These are harsh and scary words. And yet I think— what if we even started this process? Forget, for a moment, about the harshness of this verse, and imagine what would happen if we took Jesus’ advice in the first verse? If, instead of tucking hurts away, or gossiping about them to everyone but the person who hurt us, we went straight to that person and said, “Hey, this hurt me.” The first response—either ignoring the hurt or talking to everyone else about it—betrays an attitude of not really caring about the relationship or what happens to it.
I remember when Tim and I were engaged, and we were talking about books and movies, and how, in so many of them, relationships would be destroyed either by lies or by hiding the truth. When you see that happen from outside the relationship, it’s so obvious that lack of communication is what damaged these people. So we vowed, Tim and I, that we would always be honest and forthright with each other. We vowed that our marriage would take precedence over everything else, and the way we would care for our marriage was by honesty. There have been some really hard conversations as a result of this policy, especially in the first couple of years when we were still working out each others’ communication styles, but ultimately those difficult talks only strengthened our relationship.
On the other hand, hiding how you feel, or lying about it, is a sign that there are serious problems in a relationship. When someone hurts me and I don’t say anything about it, it might mean that I don’t value the relationship. It might mean that I don’t expect the person to change or take me seriously. In some cases, that might be justified, but if I’ve never been honest with that person—if you’ve hurt me and I’ve never been honest with you—then how could I know whether you’d be sorry? How can I know whether you’d be open to treating me differently? In many cases, our own openness to talk is a sign that we really care.
I keep thinking of William Blake’s poem, “The Poison Tree,” which opens,
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
As the poet continues to water and tend his tree of anger, a single apple begins to grow; he keeps feeding it, and it grows bigger and bigger. In the final stanza, Blake describes his enemy stretched out dead beneath the tree, killed by the fallen, poisonous fruit.
I was about 16 when I first read this poem, and it seemed to me then—as it does now—that we’re actually more likely to tell our so-called “enemies” that they hurt us than we are our friends. And in not telling our friends, family members, brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re doing just what William Blake does—to his enemies. The longer we go not telling our friends that they hurt us, the longer we feed and nurture that poisonous fruit. And it’s our friend, and our friendship, that we end up killing with it.
Knowing how much Jesus likes to turn things around on his listeners, I feel pretty comfortable saying that his words on dialogue are also a friendly warning to the so-called “sinners” as well. At some point or another, all of us have caused offence to our sisters and brothers, our neighbors and friends. All of us have caused each other harm. If we cultivate an open spirit, a heart of love and not of fear, then God will give us the grace to truly listen when our friend or neighbor comes to us and says, “You have hurt me.” In that moment, it will be grace that allows us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, to choose the humble spirit, and to apologize. It will be grace that helps us choose relationship over self-justification. As Jesus promises us at the end of today’s gospel reading, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” In any conflict, if we fix our hearts and minds on Jesus, Jesus will be there among us, comforting us, challenging us, giving us the grace we need to work out our reconciliation with each other and with God.
Let us pray. “O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”